I don’t know, man

I’ve been embracing ignorance. Not the willful kind or the “see no evil” kind. Those I detest. I mean the open, free, “teach me” kind of ignorance. I used to tell my students (1) never be afraid to reveal your ignorance and (2) ignorance is curable. Ignorance is a temporary state. Once you learn, you aren’t ignorant anymore. The best way to learn is to be ready to learn. Really, that’s all it takes. Most of the time we fail to learn because we aren’t ready. In school we “learn” on someone else’s schedule. Hardly ideal. Sometimes we learn because we have to, like deciphering the tax code before you fill out the forms. Or changing a flat on your bicycle so you don’t have to push the thing home. That kind of learning often works, but it’s not much fun.

I think learning should be fun. When we are having fun we aren’t thinking. We are doing and the learning is happening without our awareness. I like to ski. I talk technique with my ski buddies and I practice what we talk about. I read books about skiing and think about how to improve using those ideas. I visualize myself executing perfect turns. All those go into the mix. But the real learning takes place when I mentally shut up and simply go down the hill. If I’m relaxed and confident I can implement the things I’ve been learning effortlessly and I ski more skillfully.

But there’s the rub—relaxed and confident. It takes a lot of falls to learn how to ski. It takes some crummy days on the mountain where I’m frustrated and tired and continuing to fail at what I want to accomplish. The key is to match the pace of the event with the preparation. That is, do what you set out to do. Don’t over-reach. Learning takes place when the new material is just on the frontier of what you already know. Don’t make the big leaps until you can make the little ones. That’s how you gain confidence in your ability to learn. Once you know you can do something the actual learning is a lot easier!

The best way to be relaxed when learning something new is to stop comparing yourself to other learners. We are all different. What will be a snap to one person will be a slog to another. This is the pernicious part of schooling—everyone has to go at the instructor’s pace. When you set goals that are your own and decide on your own pace to achieve them then the learning comes naturally.

I used to be The Answer Man. I’m not that guy anymore. These days I want to be the Not-Answer Man. Or maybe The Question Man. The right question can almost answer itself. When I hit a roadblock in my thinking I respond with a flurry of questions. No one wants a flurry of questions! Usually one will do. The trick is to find that one question. And when you do, when you winnow out the obvious ones and the trivial ones, the meaningful ones are left. And they can often be lumped together and pared down to those essential, useful, difference-making questions. Sometimes the question is so to the point, so clear and in the heart of what needs to be known that it can almost answer itself. That’s real learning right there. When you are ready, relaxed, and confident, things like that happen effortlessly.

I’ve been working on my new favorite phrase: “I don’t know, man.” I use it to free my mind of bias. Of preconceived notions. Of previous experiences and the expectations that come along with them. If I want to learn I have to tune into the signal and filter out the noise. The noise is all the baggage that comes along with something that you’ve accumulated over the years. Ideally, when you are in a full-on learning mode, you automatically connect the new notions with older stuff in your head. You get an upgrade. The old stuff is still there, but it’s new again because you’ve reorganized it and reworked it. It’s not that I didn’t know something before, it’s just that I want to see it in a new way.

I never thought of myself as an athlete. I had poor eyesight as a kid and was uncoordinated. I loved sports and other physical activities but never had the success in those areas that I did in more intellectual pursuits. I’ve come learn, in my later years, that it was mostly in my head. I did not believe in my abilities so they didn’t manifest themselves. Learning to ski again in my forties and now tackling open terrain powder skiing in my fifties I have found that all my barriers are mental. There is absolutely no reason why I can’t do the things I want to do with my body attached to a pair of skis. I have to be realistic, of course. I’m not going to be popping 540’s at the terrain park or plunging down 50-degree icy pitches with rocks and man-eating moguls. But as far as getting to where I want to go, I now know that I can. And that’s because I embraced ignorance. I “forgot” all the things that used to hold me back.

So when you hear me say “I don’t know, man” what I really mean is that I’m ready to learn something new. So be ready to teach me!


The Answer Man

I used to be The Answer Man. “Go ask O’Connor” was what they used to say around school. I even got stuck with nicknames like “Dr. Factoid” and “Mr. O’Google.” This was a cultivated effort. I made a point to learn everything. If students asked about something I was unfamiliar with I spent that night and as many others as I needed getting up to speed on whatever they wanted to know. It’s ultimately futile to try to know everything, but that didn’t stop me. I was The Answer Man. Teachers love answers because all day long they get questions. Most of the questions are ones the students can answer for themselves, but daily I would get questions that were authentic. That is, they weren’t entirely answerable. I lived for those. I liked figuring out how to frame the “answer” so that the student could see how rich their question was. Science, my primary field, is filled with answers like that. You can talk about what is known and what is unknown, what is more certain and what is less certain, but you can’t always give a definitive reply.

The capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator. That was a running joke with me and my students. They all had to know that. My point was lost on them, I think. I wanted them to see that isolated factoids like that are meaningless. Unless it’s the Final Jeopardy question, of course! But so much of school is regurgitating factoids and I think that’s mostly pointless. I’m great at that sort of superficial knowledge mostly because I have a good memory. I encounter these tidbits when I’m learning about other things. I have to go back again and again to the big ideas and the deep concepts because they are hard and require that sort of effort. Along the way the bits and pieces stick to my brain like lint on velcro.

Teenagers are easily impressed. Toss out some cool facts and use big words and they think you are smart. I speak well and I’m articulate in front of a crowd. Mix that with my command of cultural arcana, my love of language and history, and my basic need to show off, and my students thought I was a genius. It wasn’t hard. Like I said, teenagers are easily impressed. While it is nice to be thought of well by your charges, that wasn’t really my goal. Sure, everyone likes to get their ego stroked, but that wasn’t my main motivation. I wanted to learn as much as I could because I thought that I might have to teach it someday. I wanted to be prepared to work with any student at any level at any time. Over the course of thirty years in the classroom I certainly did work with an enormous variety of individuals in a multiplicity of settings. And I tried out every kind of teaching and learning schemes I could come up with or steal from someone else. Teachers, god bless ’em, are notorious thieves. Anything you see done by another teacher that seems to work you take it and call it your own. It’s a survival skill.

But I didn’t know everything. It just seemed like I did because I relished the role. I loved being The Answer Man. It was a way to connect with and engage as many students as I could. I wanted to find something, even if it was entirely trivial, that I could share with a student so that he or she would feel connected. Ultimately students learn better when they feel a part of things and believe that the teacher is interested in them. And I was interested! The world is filled with amazing things and I learned so much over the years just by listening.

That was the secret—I listened. I assumed everyone else was an expert at something. And I love experts. I pick the brains of everyone I meet because I know they know all kinds of cool stuff. Stuff I would never have sought out on my own. So much of the knowledge I passed on to kids I learned from other kids! I’m also a voracious reader and will read almost anything. That’s such an easy way to learn. Students would always look at me in awe and ask “how do you know that?” and get frustrated when I said “I read it in a book.” They thought there was some magic elixir that would make them smarter or that I had some special gift they didn’t have and seemed disappointed when I showed them how easy it was to gain knowledge for themselves.

My dad loved to bullshit with people. He had a way of asking people about themselves that made them open up. Consequently he picked up a lot of things just sitting in a bar and listening to some guy go on about real estate, or vintage cars, or hunting, or whatnot. If it was something he didn’t do or didn’t know about he found out by letting people talk about their passion. I’m the same way. I got that from the old man.

In the end, it was just a job. A gig. A role, like an actor. Half of teaching is acting. My part was The Answer Man. I loved the part and played it to the hilt. It took lots of research and rehearsal. My brother is an actor and I know how much preparation he does for his parts. It was the same for me. I skimped on the mundane stuff like lesson planning and correcting papers and put more of my energy into learning. I wanted to know the material I taught but I also wanted to embellish it and flesh it out and so be able to connect it to all the other things in the world. It led to a number of spectacular discussions in class, I must say. We covered some ground! I miss that. The talks I had with students, whether in class or out, the whole class or small groups, were priceless. I’m not sure I remember the substance of any of them, just that they always started with seemingly innocent, simple questions. Naturally the students came to know that they could avoid the day’s “boring” lesson by getting me off task with a good question, and they often conspired to do so. Silly fools, they wound up learning more that way!


The Fade Out, and more

The best stuff in crime fiction these days is the latest from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, creators of Criminal, Fatale, and a host of other comic series. Their most recent venture for Image Comics is called The Fade Out. The story takes place in Hollywood during the film noir period, just after WWII and before the breakup of the so-called studio system. We mostly follow the adventures of a burned-out screenwriter who gets involved with an up and coming starlet only to wake up one morning after a serious bender to find her murdered. His search for her killer opens up dark secrets and threatens powerful people and he is terribly ill-equipped for the heat that comes down on him and his friends.

The third installment of the series arrived two days ago with my shipment from Ziesing Books, my favorite mom-and-pop outfit here in NorCal. (I strongly urge you to buy your books from Mark and Cindy Z, they answer the phone, do special orders, accept personal checks, and all that other stuff no one does any more.) It’s taken a year to get this far in the story as the three volumes are collections of the twelve monthly comic book issues. I have no idea how many more issues are planned but I know I’m hooked and will take it all the way to the end. Like other stuff from Mr. Brubaker it is multi-layered and weaves lots of threads together. You have to go back to earlier issues to keep it all straight! Like all the collaborations with Mr. Phillips the art is beautiful, always interesting and arresting. This series is colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser and her work is gorgeous and captures the mood of the story perfectly. Lies, deceit, murder, corruption, and perversion drip off the pages. You’ll never look at the movies the same way again.

If that’s not noir enough then come on over to another collaboration and another series, this one from Hard Case Crime. Irish writer Ken Bruen and American writer Jason Starr have penned three dark and twisted (but hilarious) novels about a small-timer with big ambitions called Bust, Slide, and The Max. The fourth and latest in the series just came out and is called Pimp. I expect it to be as thoroughly brilliant and equally disgusting as the previous three were.

Finishing out my order are the final two pieces of another series, this one from Ben H. Winters. A few years ago Quirk Books published The Last Policeman about a dutiful cop trying to stay on the job despite the fact that an asteroid will slam into the earth in six months and destroy all life. It’s a gripping read and the protagonist is a surprisingly likable sort, so I naturally had to find the final volumes. Countdown City and World of Trouble are on the shelf and will be tackled soon.

I like to read lots of things but the stuff categorized as “noir” or “crime fiction” (usually found under “mystery”) are some of my favorites. I think there is as much excellent fiction to be found within “genres” as in “mainstream” or “literary” categories. Good writing is good writing regardless of how it is packaged.

What sort of things are YOU reading these days? What’s on YOUR bookshelf?


On the Edge: revised

N.B. I’ve made revisions to the original narrative as I had some facts wrong. Strikethrough is the old stuff, bold italic is the new.**

I’m gasping in the thin air at 8500 feet. My heart is doing its two-step but at a benzedrine-fueled pace. It’s cold and we are exposed to the wind on the ridge line but I’m sweating under my parka and soaking my wool undershirt. Just another day on the High Traverse at Alpine Meadows! A cluster of powder-hungry skiers and boarders are making the trek along the summit of Ward Peak to the “back side” in search of fresh tracks. I’m a bit out of my league as younger and fitter enthusiasts are powering past me. I have to step out of line as I can’t keep pace without stopping to catch my breath. My ski buddy waits patiently for me but I can see he’s chomping at the bit to get to the saddle and cross over to the just-opened and untouched downhill runs. Nearly a foot and a half of snow has fallen here overnight and the Tahoe hordes are out in force to find the freshies. I plod on, side-stepping up the hillside until finally cresting at a rocky ledge. I’ve been too slow and we find ourselves at the end of the line and suddenly alone. We head bravely down to a little knob where we can see better and try to get our bearings.

Our first mistake was mine: I failed to keep up. You don’t want to lose the group when you are off-piste (technically were were within the boundaries so it’s not “backcountry” or “off-piste” but rather “open terrain” skiing) in unknown country. Our second mistake was his: my pal didn’t remember the route as clearly as he’d thought. For a few minutes we contemplate our situation and it’s a little unsettling. We know there’s a way down the mountain but we can’t find it. We think we might have to slog back up to the knife-edge we just left and look for tracks. Just as that unpleasantness sets in a couple of small parties totaling a dozen or so skiers arrive at our spot. We follow them. Thankfully they are locals and know the mountain well. We don’t have time to be relieved and just ski on.

We get to a broad, open bench with an expanse of possibilities below us. My buddy recognizes a run and we head that way and encounter a red “stop” sign. We can’t take the run my buddy wants because it is posted red for “stop” and so we continue to follow green “go” signs down the hill. Ski parks post areas as “open” or “closed” to guide skiers to places that have been checked by ski patrol. They look mostly for avalanche hazards. All morning dynamite blasting was going on along the really steep faces to remove cornices and get the loose surface layers to move downhill in a more controlled fashion. The “stop” sign had everyone confused as we had just passed two green “go” signs on the way. The locals were confused by why the High Traverse was open and yet one of the main runs down the South Face was closed. Something wasn’t right. They would not have “opened the gate” on the High Traverse and sent us in this direction if the runs were closed. A couple of the obviously more accomplished skiers in the group simply ignored the sign and powered over the edge and into the South Face wilderness below. Nevertheless the rest of the routes down were available and two of the group, obviously strong skiers, went straight down the fall line. The rest turned right and looked for another route. They found it easily and we stayed with them all the way to the bottom.

It was the most incredible skiing I have ever done. I’ve been on better snow—it was a little wet and heavy to be ideal and required a subtle touch. But I’ve never skied in better circumstances. There were multiple lines down the mountain, all untracked, untouched, virgin powder. At one point the whole group was stretched out abreast in synchrony, bobbing and weaving together and laying down matching sinuous tracks. All our earlier consternation vanished as we fell under the spell of the perfect run. Eventually we had to stop as we were out of breath. The length of the run was probably three times the length we were used to from our local small-town ski parks. It was, in powder hound parlance, “epic.” The only bad part was the run out to the Sherwood lift was lengthy and relatively flat. Thank goodness the more intrepid athletes had already cut a track in the deep snow that we could follow. Otherwise we could not have kept our speed up and would have had to hike in the goop to the bottom. When the snow depth is that great you need some slope to keep moving. On the ungroomed portions you can often get stuck and come to a stop. This is the so-called “Sierra cement” that California skiers get more often than not. It’s not the drier, colder “champagne powder” that Utah is famous for. That stuff is so fluffy you can almost blow it out of the way.

When we got to the lift line we noticed it was not moving. The lift operator was attending to some maintenance issues and seemed bewildered by the sudden presence of a pack of skiers. He was even more confused when we told him we had come via the High Traverse. According to his board the High Traverse was marked as “closed.” Apparently we were the last batch to be let through and the “go” signs we found should been turned to “stop.” They had not checked the area we had just skied for avalanche danger and had intended to send everyone that came through on another run to a different lift. At least that’s what we pieced together. In fact it was possible that the person who had “opened the gate” had done so in error. A couple of the guys in line were former employees of the resort and they were shocked and angry at the screw-up, feeling that we had been put, unnecessarily, in a dangerous spot and that we were lucky conditions were as good as they were. In the end, the mountain gods had smiled upon us and spared us from harm and gave us absurdly good skiing.

We stood there for an hour before the lift started loading and our small group took three trips up the Sherwood chair and skied down that face three times before any other skiers at the resort got access. It was like having an entire mountainside to ourselves! All the runs were totally fresh, completely untracked, utterly epic. My buddy and I skied ourselves to exhaustion and then sucked it up and skied some more. I kept thinking I’d quit because I was beat and my legs were sore but then we’d find more beautiful lines in the snow and have to keep going. Eventually the hordes broke through and the runs got increasingly cut up. Snow fell steadily throughout the day however and we worked our way over to another section of the mountain and skied “refills” until we were practically cripples. Finally we had enough and took the beginner run back to the main area of the resort and back to the parking lot where we dumped our gear and got out of our soaking wet boots. Neither of us could move very well but thirst led us to the bar where we rendezvoused with friends and shared a pint of Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. Man, was it good!

Later that night over dinner and cocktails my friend and I analyzed the perfect storm of events that led to our unique adventure. We made our mistakes, which I mentioned, and fortunately didn’t pay for them. At worst we could have been stuck in avalanche country without anyone knowing we were there. People die doing that shit! The resort compounded our mistakes with their own. One hand didn’t seem to know what the other was doing. Again, good fortune prevailed. I should say that I have great respect for ski park workers and their volunteer ski patrol counterparts. These people are amazing mountaineers and they work hard and put themselves at risk to make the resort safe for the paying customers. They can make mistakes just like anyone else.

My pal is an experienced and aggressive skier. His cockiness on the slopes is balanced by his joyful exuberance which is infectious and pushes me to get better. Every time I go with him I find myself doing things that I never thought I had in me. Sometimes we let our passion for powder get the better of our judgment. I know my limits, but I also know I have to butt up against them now and again or I’ll never get better. Alpine activities are inherently risky in and of themselves. I hurt myself seriously on my mountain bike one fall afternoon a few years back on a intermediate-level trail that I knew intimately. It’s all about balancing the risk with preparation and awareness. We resolved to be more attentive next time. I often let my friend lead the way and thus don’t take enough responsibility for myself. If he were hurt or whatnot I’d be in a heap of trouble on my own, not to mention being of no use to him. That’s my bad and something I can correct. My pal has always looked out for me and we spend a lot of time on the chairlift going over technique and discussing risks and emergency procedures. But I rely too much on his skill and thus don’t develop my own self-reliance and self-confidence. I know I have the ability but I tend to downplay it because my friend is so much more accomplished. I also know I could be a lot more physically fit which would certainly help. He thinks that’s B.S., that I’m plenty fit, I just let my fear of the unknown give me anxiety which elevates my blood pressure and robs me of strength!

It all worked out in the end. Our mission was to hit the Sierra storm and ski the powder and we accomplished that. We were “on the edge” for a moment but fortune favored the bold and we had a most memorable day in a season of great days. Let’s hope we get one more big storm here in the State of Jefferson before we put the skis away.


**All mistakes are mine. I own ’em. I’m happy to be corrected! (T’anks, man.)